How Helen Gurley Brown Sold (Out) Sex

Helen-Gurley-Brown-Feminism-CosmoSady Doyle in In These Times:

In the wake of Helen Gurley Brown’s death last week, there have been endless evaluations of her feminism. Was she a bold predecessor of third-wave sex-positivity, whose 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl established the possibility of a sexually and financially emancipated lifestyle for women? Was she a throwback who told women that sexual harassment was fun and games, plastic surgery was a must-have, and “feminism” was just another word for being a drag? Both views have passionate adherents. But the fact is, Gurley Brown was neither. She was just one of the world’s great advertisers.

To get a sense of Gurley Brown’s legacy, it might help to take a look at her baby, Cosmopolitan magazine, which she took over and revamped in 1965 after 17 years as an advertising executive. The front page of Cosmopolitan’s website, for example, has a quiz—“Are You a Good Flirt?”—wherein one can earn a rating anywhere from “Ketchup” to “Tabasco: You leave every man’s tongue burning.” Which sounds like a medical condition, actually, but is apparently good. You can also learn to “Read His Beach Body Language,” learn how to “Wow Him Every Time” or discover “30 Things To Do To A Naked Man.” (Not to spoil this for you, but I’m going to bet that at least 29 of those things are “have sex with him.”) And if you “Want a Better Boyfriend”—though one hopes you already have a good one, considering the amount of time you apparently spend reading about him—you can get him a subscription to CFG: Cosmo For Guys, where he too can learn sex tips such as “get naked too.” (I’m serious.)

You can already probably see the problems with this particular feminist legacy: It’s concentrated almost entirely on men and how to please them. There are a few feints at sexual equality—you could learn some “Steamy Ways To Turn You On” after you’re done flipping through the naked-guy manual—but for the most part, getting a boyfriend and giving him adequate orgasms are presented as both a woman’s main goals in life and her ultimate reward.